The Fraught Sex Lives of Refugees

In the experiences of refugees, a brutal clash between desire and firmly cemented religious beliefs

When Zukia Qahar, a 41-year-old former NATO logistics officer, came to Greece from Afghanistan two years ago and saw “all those disorientingly lightly-dressed European women,” he was perhaps more shocked than when the Taliban furtively asked him to become their spy at a Kabul NATO base. “I could not believe women could be so promiscuous, but, all the same, my heart was pounding. I wanted to kiss all of them,” he says.

A while later, Qahar, a short and stocky man with big brown eyes and a razor-cut beard, watched pornography with close-ups of the vulva for the first time. At first he nearly threw up, but with repetition grew fond of the spectacle. Stuck in limbo between urge and faith, about two months ago he finally paid to have his virginity taken, though “not in the orthodox way,” he defeatedly says.

Qahar was born into a well-off and religious family of Kabul, the oldest son of a tradesman who had five children, two wives, a beautiful mansion, and great relationships with the philo-Soviet government before the mujahideens—tribal groups waging holy war, the jihad—came to power. When he was five, the mujahideens launched a rocket attack on Kabul, which killed his two stepsisters who were just praying inside the house. Without a second thought, the family fled to neighboring Pakistan.

“I did all sorts of manual labor like washing cars or working at factories to help my family stay afloat during my childhood,” the Afghan man says. It was there that he also fell in love for the first time. “I was 17, she was 14,” he says. “Her name was Malala, an angel inside out and an Afghan refugee like me.” But he and Malala were members of two different sects: He is Sunni, she was Shia. As a result, her parents fiercely opposed their marriage. “I can’t understand. We all honor Muhammad. My heart was torn to pieces. I refused to lay my eyes on another girl for a long time,” Qahar says 23 years later.
Flirting with a local woman could bring her brother to my doorstep with a knife, ready to skin me alive.
In 1997, the whole Qahar family repatriated. With the mujahideens weakened by intra-war conflict, it was now time for the Taliban, the “students” in Urdu, and their sharia law, to pose threats to the family’s well-being with them first trying to confiscate his father’s property. To fight against them, he first joined the U.S. special forces in Kabul in 2000, and in 2003, NATO, where he worked as a logistics officer until 2013. During those years, he came into regular contact with Western women working at the Afghan NATO camp. Though he found them attractive, they had a major handicap—they were “atheists.” “My parents would decide whom I should marry, and a Western woman was out of the question. On the other hand, flirting with a local woman could bring her brother to my doorstep with a knife, ready to skin me alive,” he says.

Ultimately, Qahar opted to single-handedly focus on his well-paying job (he got $1500 a month working for NATO, almost as much as the president of Afghanistan, according to him), bask in the female company of his mothers and sister who cooked and washed for him, and find pleasure behind locked doors. “I masturbated sometimes several times a week, but quickly cut it down because I knew I was committing a terrible sin and losing my raw power. But with great power came this pain in the back...my back started aching like a thousand tons,” he says.

In 2003, a Taliban messenger approached him and asked him to spy for them. “You are a Muslim, don’t work with the infidels, help us destroy this camp,” the long-bearded man told him. Qahar soldiered on with NATO. In the summer of the same year, a group of Taliban raided his house and killed his remaining sister. He sent his father, mothers and brothers to Australia through a smuggler and immediately fled for Mazar-i-Sharif, a city to the northwest of Kabul, where he continued working as a logistics officer for the German NATO forces until 2016.

To his dismay, the Taliban sniffed him out again. Choiceless, the NATO ally paid a smuggler $5000 to fetch him up to Greece after a long and strenuous journey across Iran and Turkey. He was certain that once he landed safely in Europe, his American, German and French “buddies,” as he called his NATO compatriots, would instantly help him get refugee status (he insists he had been promised). As it turns out, he is still waiting for signs of life from them.
Frustrated and trapped in an Athens detention center among hundreds of other refugees, Qahar soon started accompanying other camp inhabitants to their exoduses to the Greek capital’s red-light districts.
Frustrated and trapped in an Athens detention center among hundreds of other refugees, Qahar soon started accompanying other camp inhabitants to their exoduses to the Greek capital’s red-light districts. “First time I went to one of those bawdy houses, my friends pulled me in. There were many men sitting in the hall, mostly from Pakistan. An old lady dressed in a red robe started shouting in a high-pitched voice ‘€10 for missionary, €15 for extras!’ Then, a bare-naked, big-breasted woman materialized out of thin air. Soon, she was caressing my body, giggling. I was in a daze, half thunderstruck, half nauseous. I dashed out. She kept laughing. Now the other men were laughing in synchrony. How could they do that? I returned back and prayed to God to cleanse my sins.”

The following weeks at the camp passed with three prayers a day, but also pain—stabbing pain in Qahar’s back. “I’m ashamed to say it, but, may my God forgive me, my testicles. They swelled up, and my back and groin felt like a thousand tons again. I visited the camp’s doctor. He told me I have ‘blue balls’ and advised me to have sex or at least masturbate. I felt the ground shake under my feet.”

At that time, his friends at the camp were praising “this petite and kind girl who treats inexperienced men with the best of care.” Intrigued, Qahar ventured out to the red district—alone this time. “I went early in the morning, when the bordello was almost empty. This one was kind. She was Albanian and no more than 20, slight, gentle. She took my hand, reassured me, told me not to worry. She quickly got down there, but I stopped her because this sucks the energy out of a man’s body. I asked her if we could have sex from behind, because I don’t know how to do it from in front. The truth is that I don’t remember a lot onwards because I was an animal for half an hour.”

The Afghan man visited the young woman one more time and requested the same sexual ritual. However, soon afterwards, thoughts of having contracted black or yellow hepatitis crept into him. “How many men is she kissing every night? 20? 25? And what am I doing losing my power and my faith?” he wondered. And so he stopped prospecting in the shoddy alleys of Athens—at least he hasn’t been to one since last December.

Until the same December, more than 170,000 Afghan refugees had applied for asylum in Europe. The former NATO ally was one of them. Having come to terms with the realization that his former NATO pals have left him to his own devices, he is now dreaming of getting a European Qualification passport and opening an Afghan cookies shop in the center of Athens.

In some ways, he is grateful: In Europe he started his sexuality from ground zero. Now what remains for him is to mate with an “ethical woman, and in an orthodox way.” Only problem is that his back pain has relapsed, but he prays “God will keep me away from the red lights.”

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